What are book people doing in the movie business?” This was the question Random House Films president Peter Gethers said he kept hearing after his new division was announced in 2005. Speaking to a crowd at the recent New York gala screening of RH Films' first feature, Reservation Road, Gethers was in a decidedly celebratory mood; the film's debut had proven, as the RH team noted, that the publisher is, contrary to industry assumptions, very much in the movie business.
No one quite understood how to read between the lines when Random said it would be cofinancing and coproducing films based on its books with indie studio Focus Features. After all, publishers have long tried, and failed, to get into the movie business. Synergy models that promised to strengthen ties between publishers and studios under the same corporate banner have amounted to little. (See HarperCollins-Fox and Hachette—Warner Bros.) Even the old Miramax proved it's not so easy to join book publishing with moviemaking.
Because projects from RH Films are guaranteed marketing and distribution through the deal with Focus, Random's division, according to Gethers, is the first of its kind. As Gethers explains, RH Films is not merely a development unit that passes off projects in the hopes another producer will be able to finance and sell them—it generates the projects. “There's actually a Random House employee making the call along with Focus,” he said. “[We're] not just financial partners, we're equal partners.” And on Reservation Road (based on John Burnham Schwartz's novel originally published by Knopf in 1998), Gethers said he was involved in everything from script development to watching dailies.
The hope is that RH Films—which, aside from Gethers, employs a staff of four—will be able to release a slate of films that touch on every possible genre. To that end the division has plans for a commercial thriller (Dean Koontz's The Husband); a yet-to-be-announced comedy-drama; a sci-fi horror hybrid (Scott Sigler's Infected); a “literary-oriented” international thriller (Yasmina Khadra's The Attack); and, next into production, a political drama (Bob Drogin's Curveball).
And some initial fears from agents that Random would use the film division as an unfair bargaining chip has, Gethers said, dissipated. “No one will ever hear: 'If you don't sell us the movie, we're not buying the book.'” Mostly Gethers is acquiring the traditional way: book agents are selling to Random House, and film agents are selling to RH Films. The exception is that Gethers is being pitched by both editors and agents.
Random House is also betting that the film division will really help sell books. As Gethers pointed out, Focus is pushing Burnham Schwartz's novel in all its ads for the movie, including the movie poster, which features a plug for Vintage's paperback tie-in.
With the first film now on the screen, Gethers said the critical and financial success of Reservation Road won't determine the fate of his division, which has a multiyear agreement with Focus. (The early reviews have been mixed, but both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter called out the film's potentially tough run at the box office; as THR's Kirk Honey-cutt said, it's a “very tough sell for Focus Features as [the film] gets caught somewhere between domestic weep-athon and revenge melodrama.”)
No matter what the (film) critics say, Gethers and company have made RH a Hollywood player, albeit on a small scale. That point is driven home in what some in the publishing business may feel is the most striking scene in Reservation Road: the opening frame, in which the RH Films logo is splashed across the screen.